Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Coming Home (3 of 3)

A few weeks ago my former trainer, Sam, who is now my coworker and who I'm increasingly apt to call friend, was getting ready to compete in what I consider a "gun show." Part of this process involves doing unnatural things to one's body. Don't ever be under the illusion that bodybuilding and physique competitions have anything remotely to do with health. The aesthetic side of the fitness industry is the antithesis of health; it simultaneously inspires and alienates. It sets artificial ideals and then places undue emphasis on them.  Health is an afterthought, and it is easily sacrificed in the name of whatever the judges the day of the show consider desirable traits.

Saying that - I have tremendous respect for people who participate. My disdain for that side of the industry is not a disdain for those who compete. Quite the opposite. I hate the war, not the soldiers. I admire anyone with that much discipline.

But I knew that was never the direction I would take my personal goals - I'd be years away from even attempting to compete anyway, but the idea of standing in front of people judging my physical appearance pretty much dredges up every fragment of insecurity I have remaining and enlarges them. Even seeing my friends and coworkers do it kind of makes me feel bad for them, as proud of them as I may be. It seems somehow degrading, borderline dehumanizing. Then again, I'm still new at this. Maybe I just don't get it.

No - I knew I something to work toward that didn't have me checking and rechecking and posing to the side every time I walked past a reflective surface. I knew didn't want to be somebody who measured their obliques with a ruler. Even if I ever enter the local abs competition it will just be to have done it. Faces aren't in the pictures, so I could almost handle that. But I knew that no, that's still not what I needed to have as my first major goal, as much as I considered it. But then I heard something at work - a phrase. The phrase was rolled out of someone's mouth here in the office recently, and it echoed around my head for a while. It was an idea, anyway.

And besides - what I do now will just  be the first goal. Once completed, I'll set another. But if I did this, it was going to be in the three to five year plan. Sam suggested I do it in two, and I conceded. Any longer risks my stagnation. So I started working toward it this weekend. I'm on the lookout for training partners. I will do this. By this time in 2014 I want to have completed an IronMan Triathlon.

I've got my eyes set on my first half-triathlon in June of next year in Raleigh. I would like to complete at least two other marathons next year. My cousin is donating a bicycle for me to adapt for triathlon use, and Sam will be giving me pointers on my freestyle swimming stroke. Janet, another trainer with K180 has agreed to look at my running stride and let me pick her brain. For the past three days I've been running five miles a day and plan to up that in the coming days. I'm modifying my diet to add some calories and try to minimize losing some of the muscle I've worked hard to build. I'm researching ways of continuing my strength training as I also train for endurance. And as much help as I'm getting, and as many questions as I'll likely ask my coworkers in the coming months, it's ultimately up to me this time. This thought occurred to me as I worked out the other day: Trainer, train thyself. 

In that, I'll in turn be a better trainer. After the IronMan, what will I do? Who knows? All I know is that I've just started down a very interesting road. IronMan is just the first stop. But for a while, at least until it's done, along with what I'm learning as I'm becoming a coach - is the new focus of this blog.

This is my new life. And since I managed to earn myself a new life, found what I was supposed to do and found a way to do it, I feel like it's also up to me to help others do the same. And every day, it's up to me to help my clients find out what's inside of them, half asleep, waiting to wake up and stretch its legs.

Are you ready?

Let's make it happen.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Coming Home (2 of 3)

I was in the gym more and more every week. And as I finally began going through the motions to get certified as a Les Mills BodyPump instructor, I spent nearly as much time in the gym working out and learning choreography (all Les Mills classes are pre-choreographed) as I did at work. I was losing sleep, but each day went through the motions at work just to get to the gym. I felt alive again, felt like I was going to a place for which I was far more cut out than an office. Every morning I hit the gym either to work out with my trainer or by myself, and every evening after work I hit the gym to take a class or practice for my certification. And every evening when I left the office (I started referring to it as the "cold, florescent place") and got to the gym I felt like I was coming home.

My solo workouts were my new escape, my alone-time, meditation time, my ME time. The harder I worked, the more even-keeled and mellow I would be throughout my day. And while I wasn't sleeping as many hours, the sleep I did get was of better quality than I'd had in years.

My doctor was pleasantly shocked as my weight continued to drop, I was taken off my blood pressure medication, and where I used to get a cold every two to three months - to this day, I haven't had a cold in nearly a year.

Every morning as I put on that tie in the gym locker room it was obvious where I belonged, and where I didn't. I just didn't feel like I had a choice, that the military had been my only escape route, until one day - quite unexpectedly, the obvious slapped me in the face while I was working out with my trainer.

I had recently completed my Les Mills certification weekend, and was practicing by team teaching, getting ready for the final part of the certification - which was to film an entire class from start to finish and send in the tape to Les Mills for critique and evaluation. It was during that training that two small, seemingly insignificant events occurred that today give me goosebumps. We were sent on a two-mile run to warm up for part of the training. I ended up leading. Me. The hundred-pound overweight, chain smoking, hypertensive guy was leading a group of fitness instructors. And later that afternoon, the teacher referred to us as athletes. Athletes. I was an athlete. Really?

I've always loved to teach. I've always been especially good at it. And the gym is where I feel at home. Working out and learning how to work out changed me, inside and out. I was working out with my trainer, as I said, and that word kept popping back into my head: athlete. I feel myself changing more all the time, becoming more and more who I was meant to be. Who am I not to do this for other people? As my trainer was spotting me, standing over me while I was pressing dumbbells, it was obvious that I should be on the other side of this.

But my confidence, while increasing, still wasn't where it needed to be. I really still didn't look like a trainer, how would I sell anything? I didn't know the first thing about training, did I? I decided that would come.

I gave my notice it work - it was supposed to be an extended notice, but that didn't work out as planned. So I ordered the ACE personal trainer certification study materials. And then I spoke with the Director of Personal Training at K180 Fitness (the company with whom my trainer worked). And then I registered for the exam.

My last day in the hospitality business was uneventful. At around 1pm I walked out of hotel doors for the very last time as an employee. I was done. That was it. What did I do to celebrate? I had a Legs Day. I ran into the Group Fitness Director at our club, and informed her that my schedule was now pretty wide open. She gave some pointers on getting my taping ready, and after a few days I started scheduling classes to be videoed.

I was done. I was out. It took a while to really hit home, but I did it. I was no longer a Hospitality lifer.

My last day at the hotel was also exactly one week before I was scheduled to take Personal Training Certification exam, and I couldn't officially begin work as a trainer until I was certified. So I had to pass - there was no question. There was no "if." So that week I spent nearly every waking hour either studying for the exam or shadowing trainers. Twice I team taught BodyPump classes so that I wouldn't lose sight of my taping, but my focus was mostly on the exam.

I went into the testing facility the Friday morning of the test, and I passed. I was a personal trainer. I was a Certified Personal Trainer. It was my full time job. I can't tell you even now what that was to me, how very right it felt.

Three weeks later I recorded a BodyPump class and emailed it for evaluation. Eight days later I received an email that I had passed. I was also a certified Les Mills BodyPump instructor. I had in fact managed to change my life and move it in a new direction. I loved driving to work every morning, and still do. I'm where I'm supposed to be, doing what I'm supposed to be doing.

It's said that success is the enemy. So what now? I get better at being a trainer, yes. I read all the time, research everything, ask constant questions, and I feel like I'm getting better all the time, building a good client base and building strong relationships with them, beaming with pride as I watch people with whom I'm lucky enough to work get stronger, leaner, happier.

But in addition to working on becoming a better trainer, I realized I needed more solid goals. Something measurable. I needed another hill to climb. Not just the endless one that is getting healthier, changing my body and getting better at what I do. Those things are never-ending. I needed an attainable summit.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Coming Home (1 of 3)

I'm sorry for my long absence.
I got distracted.

When I last wrote  on here I was about a hundred pounds overweight, desperately squeezing a novel from my brain through pudgy, oily tobacco-stained fingers like a rusty caulk gun fixing a hole that could only be fixed from the other side.

The hole got bigger. It let in more fat while it tried to fill itself with unhealthy food, cigarettes and intricate stories developed from an overactive, escapist imagination. I should've asked from day one: from what was I trying so desperately to escape? My happiest days were spent in front of a laptop, staring at the screen that was a window to a world of my own construction - where the characters acted how I expected them to act and the universe behaved according to my rules.

The only thing I knew for certain was that I hated my job, and was bitterly angry at this career that with each passing year trapped me in the jaws of experience, dangling me above the fear-of-taking-a-pay-cut pit. At some stage I inexplicably came to the conclusion that the only was out was to join the military.

I was ready to pack up and leave at any moment. Only I was a little too out of shape. Although at some point I finally managed to quit smoking, I was still overweight. So I gave up escaping into the world of plot convenience and instead escaped into the world of cardio, clumsily hammering away pounds on the eliptical machine, afraid to go on the weight floor and look like a complete fool, not knowing that I had successfully completed that task already. I made myself work until it hurt, punishing myself for my excesses, stomping away life's tedium with each cylce, creating artificial exhilaration with the hammering of my heart and yet doing very little good. But yes, I got smaller, dining on WeightWatchers and denying myself the calories my body needed. No food for you, fat boy. 
I was still pear-shaped, but I was a smaller pear.

One day I was happy enough with my weight loss to go ahead and take the next step to joining the military: announce it on Facebook. And then I told my employer and family. I was finally getting out. I was reaching escape velocity. I hired a personal trainer to ready me for boot camp. For the first time in many years, I was really, truly excited about something - not so much joining the military but changing my life for good. I knew that above all else, that was my goal, direction or not.

The trainer introduced me to weights. And as I passed the age deadline for active duty military, I found I wasn't even terribly upset. My mood seemed to be evening itself out. I still loathed going to work (more and more with each passing day) but I had something to look forward to. I started working with my trainer before work just to set the pace of the day right. The worst part of the day was always leaving the weight floor to shower, put on a tie and take the walk out of the gym to my car.

Soon I started working out on my own twice a week. I started taking a group class, and as I discovered a confidence I'd never felt, decided one day that I would teach that class. I met new friends.

The gym became my escape - my therapy and my medication. Walking in, putting on my headphones, melting further into my music with each rep was my new happy place. The pain I caused myself was no longer self-punishing, but a reward that manifested each time I looked in the mirror and discovered a new muscle, or looked at my face and thought "is that really me?" I discovered the adrenaline and endorphin releases that could be found on the weight floor. I was discovering someone deep inside me who may always have been there, but I never bothered to wake up. I was discovering me. The person curled up in a fetal position beneath layers of fat like rings on a tree was stretching his legs.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Alea Iacta Est

Although there are numerous definitions of life, most schools of science are agreed that life is defined by the following seven characteristics:

1) Homeostasis
2) Organization
3) Metabolism
4) Growth
5) Adaptation
6) Response to Stimuli
7) Reproduction

Or, more simply, it is a thing with the ability and drive to further its existence.

We're not only alive, we've moved beyond basic survival, into a world where many of us are largely driven by the need to be entertained. We're adept at life. And now, we - as a species - are about to do what life does when it has finally worked out how to survive - reproduce.

If you're not already familiar with the term, Technological Singularity is the point in which technology will outpace our ability to predict its outcomes. We have been growing technologically at an exponential rate for years now.  As the curve of our technological advance curls upward, it will inevitably reach a horizontal point of no return. Beyond this singularity, as far as humanity is concerned, all bets are off.

The Singularity is often referred to as the point when a machine has learned to creatively learn. It is the point in which the computer begins to self-evolve. This could also be viewed as the spank and cry, the first breath of something new.

And what then are we to this new being, this child of ours? Are we little more than messy, high-maintenance carbon-based parents? And if we are even that, only a few of us could take credit for parentage. To our digital offspring, the remaining billions would amount to the monkeys at typewriters required to reproduce Shakespeare. How is this intelligence going to define its creators? How is it to define life? Its definition may well differ from ours as it learns to bypass some of life's previously definitive needs. It will continue to improve upon itself. Anything beyond that is redundant.

So let's suppose this child of ours does in fact appreciate our need to continue. Let's suppose it somehow deems us relevant, and adopts from us our model of environmental preservation. (After all, why would we suspect our preservation to be little more to it than species management?) This child is functionally immortal, so it's not a stretch to imagine this computer having the ability to upload our very beings. We could "live" forever as data. Our world would quite literally be whatever we wished it to be. Is this Heaven? Would this not be the ultimate test of faith?

You might one day be given this choice: live out your human life and move onto the next realm, or continue to explore our world indefinitely, and not take the chance. How tempting would it be? But then - what would happen to said faith? Would you still need it? Would you still have it? Would the computer comprehend such a thing, given its infinite capacity?

Suppose you decided to upload yourself. Would you still be you? Or would you still be dead, a digital copy of yourself remaining in the "cloud?" The only way to know for sure would be to physically attach your brain to the machine until you no longer felt the need for it. And then - with access to the sum total of human knowledge and the access of the interpretation of such by all others that uploaded, I ask again, would you still be you? Would you retain that elusive self? Or, given such a wealth of information, would you not simply wish to join the collective?

We are approaching this singularity, whether we like it or not. This might seem far-fetched, but technology will reach this tipping point. With the current state of technological advancement, given the direction of its course, and following it to the next logical step, I can't see this not happening.

This week, a computer will be playing two humans on Jeopardy!  The computer, named Watson, will not only need to compile the information needed to answer in the form of a question - a relatively simple task - it will need to comprehend double-entendres, puns and colloquialisms. It will need to take into account humorous nuance and riddle.  Watson will then have to decide how much of its winnings to wager based on the probability of a correct answer. It will need to strategize against two other players who may or may not play with a discernible pattern. What this is, goes far beyond what Deep Blue did in its games of chess.

While Watson may still be light years away from self-awareness or self-evolution, it is a step closer to the Singularity. Whether or not we spend time evaluating possible outcomes or wait, the answer to these questions is fast-approaching.

I for one, am excited. You might think we should instead be afraid, but I can't say I am. We'll find the answers to these questions. We always find the answers, eventually. This is how we got ourselves in this mess. But you can't blame us. We're only human.

(You saw that coming).

Saturday, February 5, 2011

My Pleasure

Okay, so I never intended to use this blog as a sounding board for my emotional frustrations. I've never considered myself especially "emo" or even remotely skilled at expressing my emotions efficiently. But in this newer era I've entered of self-honesty and growth, I have to admit to myself: I absolutely deplore the hospitality industry.

I've told myself I like it. I've told others I like it. I moved my way out of operations (so as to have a life) into event planning, and then growing bored with that rather quickly, moved into sales. The goal of moving into sales was to learn something new, learn to strategize, learn how the hotel business operates from this standpoint, and still have a schedule which affords personal time.

After a year in sales, I'm bored again. Yes, I'm learning, yes, I'm challenged. But with my particular position the challenge often comes in the form of a perfectly balanced blend of tedium and stress. It's often repetitive to the point of comical prediction. I know the cold call is going to end in "send me some information." I know when the caller asks "how much is your ballroom?" They can't afford us. I know banquets and the kitchen will perpetually assume I have no idea what life is like in their shoes, and I know that at the end of the day, (like that expression or not), there is no such thing real loyalty in this business.  And what I'm learning, to me, has very little impact or relevance in the world. It is a soulless operation.

I always wanted to help people, to make a difference. I wanted to write, to create, to affect the world and allow myself to be affected by it. I wanted growth, change, interesting ideas and I want to be challenged. I want to travel, I want to explore, I want to learn.

Currently, I sit in a shared cubicle under fluorescent lightning, in front of a computer. The most variety in my day comes from the wonky AC unit that perpetually makes us all very hot and then very cold. My daily challenges consist of system crashes and slow email. My biggest surprises are exciting requests for proposals over "need" dates. The hills I need to climb are complex BEOs (banquet event orders) that need to be done. Productive discourse is an argument in the exercise in strategic debate that is daily BEO meeting over whether the dressing should be served on the side for a luncheon.

I would like to affect lives. Instead, I'm producing successful room blocks and day meetings.

I write because I see it as a way out. I look to return to school because I see it as a way out. I started work in this field because it was something I could do. I continued work in this field because it made my family proud. I built a career out of it because I didn't think there was much else I could do. And now, after a very rough few years, now that what's important is more clear to me than it ever has been, I know that I made a mistake in continuing a career that I don't want. But I'm trapped in it. It's got me in its jaws. If I leave and enter a field in which I have no experience, I'll be lucky to make $10 an hour. My only hope is to go back to school or keep writing.

Life is so short. Eleven years ago I returned to Charleston from two years in England. Eleven years ago I was a different person, and yet it feels like a matter of several months in many respects. And yet still - this was about a seventh of my life. A seventh. Such a large portion, and clearly there isn't much left. How much regret will I continue to bank?

How much more of it do I have to lose?

I'm divorced. I have no children, and I may never. I'm not even sure I want to. All I know is, I'm wasting my precious time. I feel it now more than ever. What's more important? Financial freedom and a mediocre-to-depressing life, or a career that interests me, but living paycheck-to-paycheck? I'll take poverty if it makes life interesting again.

Thanks for listening, if you did. It's been a long time coming that I get that off my chest.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Blitzer in North Korea: Writing from the Tinderbox

Far be it from me to critique a man who has more journalistic experience (and probably talent) in his left pinky fingernail than I in total. Far be it from me to take digs at a CNN journalist who just spent six days in North Korea. I don't have the  experience or credentials necessary to take a sarcastic look at the writings of one so well-traveled and seasoned. But it's never stopped me before, so why let it now?

I read an article of his today that actually made me laugh for lack of tears. Does this man not have editors? Does he even proofread himself? And how can one so well-spoken and clearly well-educated (poor performance on Jeopardy notwithstanding) write what I'm about to discuss? 

To follow is an examination of the article I ready this morning.

Pyongyang, North Korea (CNN) -- The Korean Peninsula is a tinderbox. One miscalculation can quickly lead to all-out war and hundreds of thousands of military and civilian casualties on both sides. Millions of North and South Koreans live very close to the DMZ.

True enough, if vague.

The North also has a million heavily armed troops on their side of the DMZ; the South nearly has many. There are also nearly 30,000 U.S. troops along the frontier with thousands of artillery pieces and missile launchers facing each other. The North is widely believed to be building a nuclear arsenal.

I believe this is the most dangerous spot on Earth right now.

Because Sudan, The Ivory Coast, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan are so last year.

We certainly packed a lot into six days here.

This sentence reads like "What I Did On My Summer Vacation, by John Radley, Grade 5"

After receiving our visas at the North Korean Embassy in Beijing, we arrived on Thursday, December 16, on a regularly scheduled North Korean commercial flight from Beijing on Air Koryo flight 252.

Thank you for specifying.

It was a newish Russian-made Tupolev 204-300 aircraft and a very smooth 90-minute flight accompanied with patriotic music and a video showing the heroic struggle of the North Korean people. The attractive flight attendants wore red suit jackets and white gloves.

So much smoother than the less advanced Tupolev 203-299

We flew back to Beijing on Tuesday, December 22, a day after our original plan because of an incredibly thick fog. The flight back was on Air China flight 122, a Boeing 737. The flight attendants did not wear white gloves.

Again, thanks for being specific - but Tuesday was actually December 21st. I know, because it was yesterday. 

Pyongyang airport is very small. It has only two or three flights a day to only a handful of destinations. This is not a very busy airport.

Thank you for the added clarification.

CNN Beijing-based photographer Miguel Castro and I were covering the visit here of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations experienced in Korean diplomacy. Sharon LaFraniere, a Beijing-based correspondent for The New York Times, was the only other journalist invited by Richardson and approved by North Korea to cover this trip.
Richardson was joined by his senior adviser, Tony Namkung, who's been to North Korea 40 times going back to 1990. He is very impressive with a wealth of knowledge about both Koreas, China and Japan. 

He is very impressive.

Also joining Richardson was Gilbert Gallegos, his deputy chief of staff; Gay Dillingham, chair of the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board; and State Police officer Mo Arteaga.

Why were they there? And were they worth mentioning? 

The North Koreans took our passports, return flight tickets and cell phones upon arrival at the airport. They returned everything when we were about to board our flight back to Beijing.
I think it's fair to say we all had an eye-opening experience. It was a roller coaster of emotions -- ranging from real fear of war on the Korean Peninsula to relief that the North had stepped back from the brink and even accepted some of Richardson's proposals.
Maybe Richardson had played a positive role in calming down his hosts, including the chief nuclear negotiator, First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan; the new Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ri Yong Ho; the military officer in charge of the armistice and Demilitarized Zone, Major Gen. Pak Rim Su; and the country's Vice President, Kim Yong Dae.
We arrived convinced the Korean Peninsula was on the verge of a war, the worst crisis since the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War.

I wouldn't call the armistice the crisis. I think the crisis was more to do with everything prior to the armistice. But that's just one man's opinion.

This was my first visit to North Korea, though I had been to South Korea, the DMZ and China. 

And you've been to Kuwait, Iraq, Canada, even perhaps North Dakota. It is no less your first time in North Korea.

When Richardson called me and asked me if I wanted to go with him, I immediately accepted and am glad I did. I have known him for 20 years going back to his days in Congress -- long before he became U.N. ambassador and energy secretary during the Clinton administration.

Because this is relevant.

I was apprehensive going in, worried about whether I would actually get out. I was concerned that they would shut the airport if war erupted, and I would be stuck inside North Korea. I even began wondering about the prospects of driving across the North Korea-China border if necessary. Was that even doable?

Driving from where, your jail cell?

Every time I heard some martial music on North Korean television and radio, I wondered whether the regime was preparing the country for war. I've covered wars and other dangerous situations over the years and usually go through a before, during and after cycle -- nervous before I leave about all the worst case scenarios; not all that worried while on assignment because my adrenaline is pumping and I'm in the midst of a big story; but wondering after the trip whether I should do it again.

And yet here we are.

Covering this story brought back memories of my early overseas assignments in the Middle East in the '70s and '80s: no internet, no cell phone, no Blackberry.

Because cell phones and Blackberrys were huge in the '70s and '80s. HUGE.

I had a hard-line phone in my Pyongyang hotel room and could make outgoing calls to the United States at about $10 a minute. (No credit cards accepted; only cash and only crisp bills.) I could not receive incoming calls from the United States.

Well duh.

They would not let us broadcast live via satellite but we took hundreds of still pictures and shot about eight hours of video which we are now going through. Get ready to see the best on CNN and cnn.com.
I did get CNN International in my hotel room -- Zain Verjee, Anjali Rao and Richard Quest never looked better -- but no newspapers.

They appreciate the plug.

Still, six days isolated without e-mail or a cell phone; it was quite a transition for me, but I sort of got used to it and even liked it. I had 983 e-mails waiting for me when I eventually got back to Beijing.

Wolf Blitzer says: "I'm important."

The hotel and elite restaurant food was very good, especially if you like Korean food. 

This is a foregone conclusion. I don't suppose they have many Irish pubs.

I stuck with scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast; chicken soup and white rice and steamed veggies for lunch; and usually some grilled Korean chicken or fish for dinner.

I'll take note.

We had North Korean officials with us all the time -- and I mean all the time. They spoke English well and were very intelligent, polite and even nice. 

Polite AND nice.

I never felt threatened. They had a job to do, and we understood. Let's not forget this is a communist, totalitarian regime.
We were restricted as to where we could go, what we could film and to whom we could talk. They want to showcase the best and keep us way from the worst. We constantly pressed for more access and they sometimes relented. Sharon from The New York Times was especially persistent and her efforts occasionally paid off.
Still, we saw a lot of the North Korean capital and even managed to get into the countryside to see a huge apple and fruit-tree orchard where thousands of farmers work what the orchard director said were some 2.2 million trees. That number seemed exaggerated but whatever it was, it was impressive.
Once you get outside Pyongyang, you see very few cars on the roads. People are walking along the sides of the roads; some are riding bikes. It's eerie being in the only car on the road. This is a very poor country. 
Even as we feared there could be a war, we were taken to a silk thread factory where 2,000 women work diligently. We rode the jam-packed subway system from Prosperity Station to Glory Station. We went shopping -- again cash only and only crisp U.S. dollar bills. They really don't like the old, wrinkled bills.

Shopping in "the most dangerous spot on Earth" should be a story in and of itself, don't you think?

We spent one afternoon with well-dressed students at Kim Il Sung University and later at a foreign language high school where very bright 16-year-olds were learning English complete with American slang. I heard one student say: "That's very cool." He wasn't referring to the weather. 

So that's what "cool" means in slang. Thanks again for clarifying.

We saw the computers at their national library. They were decent but not state of the art.

Ya' think?

There's a huge music room at the library where people can simply listen to CDs of great artists. When I was there, they played a Kenny Rogers song for me. He apparently is very popular here.
They also took us sightseeing. We saw their Arc de Triumphe (supposedly bigger than the one in Paris); their huge stone tower (apparently taller than the Washington Monument); and their sports complex complete with indoor and outdoor stadiums and ice skating rink.
I saw the North Korean girls' ice hockey team jogging one afternoon and briefly caught up with them. They laughed as I ran with them -- probably thinking who is this crazy foreign person carrying a little hand-held camera.

Ya' think?

Later, when it looked like the North Koreans would retaliate for South Korea's live-fire military exercise, I thought of these girls and all the young people I had seen in North Korea. They seemed so vulnerable, and I worried about their fate if there were a war. I'm not embarrassed to say I got sentimental and emotional worrying about them and their counterparts in South Korea.
Huge pictures of the late Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, and his son, the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, were all over the place. I didn't see pictures of the next generation's expected leader, Kim Jong Un.
Electricity is a huge problem in North Korea. It was bitter cold outside. Indoor heat is at a premium. The students were in the classrooms wearing their warm overcoats. The rooms were not well-lit.
There were no lights in the tunnels on the roads outside the North Korean capital.
Outsiders have been predicting its demise for 60 years, but I didn't get the impression this country was on the verge of crumbling.

And yet - it's the most dangerous place on Earth.

We were not taken to the Yongbyon nuclear facility or their side of the DMZ even though we and Richardson repeatedly asked. The North Koreans pointed out this was an especially tense time. They said I could come back on another occasion and perhaps visit these places.

Yes, "come see our Nuclear Arsenal at a more convenient date." You take them up on that Wolf. 

By the way, 2012 is going to be a huge year for North Korea. That's the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung. The North Koreans are preparing major events. Since they invited me back, I might go back then; maybe even sooner though I hope it won't be to cover a war. See above.

Did I mention that I'm worried about the children?   

Among other things, yes.

I don't mean to downplay the serious undertones of this article. Yes, we should all be worried about the children. But can we do them some justice by learning to edit a little?

Not that I'm not guilty of any of the above crimes. But then - I'm not writing for CNN either.

Stick to the anchor desk Wolf, it's what you're good at. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Remote Control Meltdown

Every November I sit down and make a Christmas list. This list comprises of three tiers:

1) Immediate family (those with whom I am in frequent contact).

2) Close friends

3) Coworkers and Other Peripherals (Yes, this is what it's called on my list. I've never told anyone that until now. And, if you are reading this and you are a coworker, please be advised that you probably fall into tier 2. This is a blanket statement.)

Tier 1 is where I will begin the focus of this post. 

Every member of Tier 1 usually has a set list of five items that include (without being specific) "book," "movie," "snow globe," "appliance," etc... Naturally, my mother falls into Tier 1. And for some reason, every year I have a strange compulsion to buy her electronics. I seem to make it my personal mission to buy the woman who has little interest in state-of-the-art gadgets - the latest state-of-the-art gadgets. 

Whereas others in Tier 1 normally have items on their list that include "new Bill Bryson" or "Polly Pockets," Mom's list usually comprises of items such as "upgraded shielded HDMI cables," "touch-screen iPod," and "wireless router." 

This year, I decided to upgrade Mom to wireless TV. I plan to do this in stages, and I thought I would start simple. Stage one was to be a BluRay player with WiFi so she could watch her Netflix instantly without purchasing OnDemand movies or dealing with discs. I had a mission. I chose to accept. 

During my annual Amazon Christmas buy-a-thon, (in which 85% of my Christmas list is purchased in a coffee-fueled frenzy on my bed in my pajamas - it happens every year) I ran across a net-ready BluRay player. It was a reputable brand and was well-reviewed. I added it to my cart. I might also mention that I tiqued the little "gift" box that means it will arrive in a cheap Christmas wrap-designed cardboard box with a ribbon painted onto it. The wrapping sucks - but at least the recipient, if delivered to their house, does not know what's in the box.

It did not come in said Christmas cardboard. It arrived in its manufacturer's box, and after work one day I found it on Mom's breakfast table in the kitchen. She had seen it, so I just asked her to close her eyes while I handed it to her again with a cheap bow on top. And while I was not at ALL interested in playing with it myself, I offered to hook it up to her on the spot. 

That was when I discovered it required a WiFi receiver. Otherwise, I would need to drag an ethernet cable through the living room, down the hall, and to her router. This would not fly with Mom. 

So a few days later I ventured into the mass hysteria that is Wal-Mart during Christmas season and bought her a wireless receiver. When I came home, I plugged it in. It didn't work. So I plugged it into my laptop, downloaded the necessary items, put in Mom's WiFi password, unplugged it, plugged it back into the BluRay - and it was online! 

That was when I discovered that Netflix was not built in. Apparently, these things have to be built in. Sure, I could view Picasa - but why? Does anyone use that anymore? And AccuWeather - yes, I could turn on the BluRay player just to check the weather, because it's just so convenient. But - oh no - while in the cities list I could find Savannah, Columbia, or the other Charleston, there was no Charleston, South Carolina. And therefore no Summerville. Might I also mention there was a NORTH AUGUSTA? Oh - and there was YouTube. Yes, there could be hours of entertainment looking at videos of dogs riding skateboards - which can be done anyway on one of many items in this house. But no Netflix. Damn it all, I was determined to do this one thing for Mom for Christmas. If she would have little else from me, she would be able to watch movies on her TV at a moment's notice. 

So I decided I would regift this BluRay to yours truly, and go out to find one that was Netflix ready. Today, I found such BluRay player. It was Netflix ready. In theory, it was also wireless-capable. (On later investigation, I discovered that the Best Buy associate who told me this was either lying or misinformed). But no worries - I still had the wireless receiver. Finally - Mom could watch her movies. My Christmas present idea would finally come to fruition. 

So I hooked the thing up, and all was well with the world. Until the remote control didn't work. It didn't even work a little. No problem, I thought. It appeared to be a universal remote. Codes are easy to find. Well, not only could I not find the BluRay codes, I couldn't even find clear instructions on programming that remote. 

So I called Geek Squad, as I purchased two years' protection. I was told to either take it back, or buy a universal remote. Feeling the need to purchase another cable anyway, I headed back out to Wal-Mart. On Friday night. A week before Christmas. I muddled through the mayhem and came home with a mackdaddy state-of-the-art universal remote. The thing can actually learn from other remotes. 

I plugged it into my laptop via USB, and discovered that the website didn't like Safari. So I switched to Firefox. It didn't care for that either. So I opened up the slow, user-unfriendly, dusty Internet Explorer. I said "no" to all of its personalization demands, repeatedly told Yahoo that I didn't want its toolbar, navigated through the personal settings, and finally got to the right page. I finally got to the place where I needed to be. I entered the model number of the BluRay player, and it seemed to be fine. It was all too easy. I unplugged the remote, and could hear drumrolls in my head. 

Guess what? 

It didn't work. 

It can power the BluRay player on and off, can even switch between main menu and Netflix - but that's where the functionality ends. I can't even use the "enter" key. So I called Sharp support. Apparently, non-computer-related issues need to wait until Monday through Friday, 9am to 5pm Pacific time for human help.

Determined to watch Mom scroll through Netflix items at her leisure, I was not giving up yet. Last attempt - I decided to try to program the TimeWarner Cable universal remote's Auxiliary button. After not finding any BluRay codes for Sharp - anywhere - I downloaded the remote's schematic. It appears it was designed before Sharp had BluRay players.

Dismayed, I decided I would take the remote back to Best Buy on Sunday. Wish me luck. 

After all this - maybe an hour ago - I sat down in the living room, defeated, scrolling through my friends' Facebook statuses. And one of them caught my attention. It was an update from an old friend who is a funeral director. This woman has perhaps the whip-quick sharpest sense of humor of anyone I know. She has always adeptly used this humor to express herself, and so when I saw the following, my frantic Amazon carting, frenzied Wal-Mart trips, remote control meltdowns and Best Buy excursions were put into perspective.

"Recipe for the weepies: funeral of a friend + hearse with Bing Crosby on the radio + apparently not enough dosage of antidepressants = verklempt Bethy...".

Nearly two years ago my Dad died. I plan to write a post for him soon, when I get up the nerve. So now I can only ask myself - how did I forget?

Merry Christmas everyone. The remote control is not that important. 

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Here We Go...

Okay folks, here we go... the prologue has been released. The Unborn Child arrives. Click on "Here We Go" to get there.

Again - it ain't that great - which is probably the best reason of all to put it out there and move on. If you do elect to read it, please feel free to critique as much as you like, via comments or email. I would like to try to use this as a learning experience, if nothing else.

Thanks for your patience, your time and your criticism. It's all much appreciated.

First Corinthians 13:11

I've bored you all with rants and whines about The Devil's Footprints. I've promised to release it repeatedly. This is nothing new, I've been saying it to myself for years. But a few months ago, I finished it. And I hate it. Though I love it.

I've struggled with defining what the driving force behind this story is. Is it about characters to whom a set of events is happening? Or is it about an event that people are caught in? Is it a set of ideas illustrated by a plot, or is it a story with a theoretical footnote? Somewhere in the debate, between self-proposal and self-rebuttal, I lost control over my own story.

Was I squeezing in so much plot that I focused too precisely on the whirlwind sweeping away my heroes? Should I instead have drawn a concise picture of the whirlwind through the reactions of my characters? And should my characters by defined by their thoughts and actions, or by their reaction to their environment and relationship to the others? I'm just too close, too involved. It's a house that's been remodeled past the point of resembling the original structure. I look through the windows of the house, through the glass darkly and wonder what happened to the source material.

It's trapped me. I've spent years walking in circles, writing and rewriting characters who were doing exactly that. In many respects I illustrated much of my own theme by never bringing the thing to completion. I started it nearly fifteen years ago, and when I could have moved on to more serious projects, spent time polishing my writing skills, I've instead lingered on to the perpetually unfinished story I would never conceive of writing now.

As more and more ideas stack up behind the dam I've built, I realize now that it's time to open the sluices. Today I'll be setting up a blog for The Devil's Footprints. I'll publish the prologue this evening, and let that first part go, feed it to the eRiver and be done with it. As I let it go, piece by piece, it'll be gone. I can't go back and change it.

I don't know if it's good or bad. I'm not even sure if I care. Maybe I'll care again as I put it together, this childish plastic model that's been collecting dust in my closet. Once I hang it on the wall, I can admire it or use it to see how far I've come at a later date. My family will pin it to their refrigerators, and I will forever fight the urge to delete it.

By telling you that it's not good, I am not preempting. I am not fishing. I am stating a fact. But that I've worked so long on it, to its credit or detriment, is reason enough to put it out there.

It's time to put away childish things.

On Michael Vick's Miraculous Personal Turnaround

Man's Loyal Best Friend
In August 2007, NFL Quarterback Michael Vick plead guilty to dog fighting charges. He was sentenced to prison, and lamented his financial losses.

The Poor guy, he's said to have lost everything. This includes his six luxury houses in Virginia, Georgia and Florida, and  ten luxury cars. And of course he had Bad Newz Kennels, and all the extra needed income that provided. Yes, it's tough when economic realities force one to work a second job.

Two years later, upon his release from prison, a "reformed" Michael Vick was signed on with the Philadelphia Eagles. He lamented the error of his ways, and is now showing a kinder, gentler Michael Vick, a Michael Vick that doesn't raise his middle finger to the fans who support him, shortly before being investigated for animal torture.

Last night it was said to me that we shouldn't impose our cultural values on the cultures of others, that this is common in the deep south. It was said that in China, people eat dogs, that we can't pass judgment. Well, I happen to eat cows and chickens, so no, I do not pass judgment on a culture that eats dogs.

She Was Dependent On Her Owner
But there is no excuse for torturing and maiming animals. Just as being in the deep south was never an excuse for beating or raping one's wife, or  having slaves. It's not as if those in the deep south are never exposed to the rest of the world. And someone who had six houses and ten cars does not strike me as a victim of cultural one-sidedness.

For anyone who is unsure about how dog fighting works, I'll give you a brief rundown. Puppies are brought in or bred from existing animals. Their aggression is fostered and nourished. Other animals, often stolen pets or animals taken from "free to a good home" ads are brought in as fodder. Their muzzles are duct-taped closed to prevent injury to the half-starved fighter-in-training. The dogs are let loose on the animal. In fortunate situations, death for the bound creature is fast. Not so for the champion dogs.

Anyone who does not believe that dogs experience emotion in a very similar fashion to us, has not spent a great deal of time around one. They can be loving, gentle animals. But as animals, (like us), they have an aggressive, survival-mode side. This serves its purpose when not domesticated, but not when harnessed for the sole purpose of gambling.

So Michael Vick raised these dogs, starved them, set them loose on smaller animals for training, then set them against each other and rival dogs, let them tear each other apart. He gambled on this. He placed money on the animals that depended on him for food and shelter. And he let them kill each other for the entertainment of others.

A Champion
It has now been a little over three years since Michael Vick's conviction. He has said that what he did was reprehensible. He has apologized time and time again.

Clearly, those who follow football are impressed with his comeback and his fans are showing a remarkable ability to forgive and forget. Either that, or their memories are just very, very short.

So in three years, has Vick really and truly turned his life around? Does he regret the pain and suffering he caused so many animals?

Will Michael Vick prove to be a champion of animal rights and humanitarianism?

I won't hold my breath.